As the bars reopen and businesses regroup in post-Covid Queenstown, George Driver finds a town filled with bargain prices, eerie streets, fear and hope.
A “tourism bloodbath”, a “broke, empty paradise” facing a “tsunami of unemployment”. The headlines about Queenstown have not been positive. Neither are the figures. Unemployment expected to hit 30%. Tourism, 55% of the town’s economy, gone overnight. International tourists — 70% of the market — will not return for many months. The Salvation Army has said there is a looming “refugee crisis” — thousands of migrant workers made redundant but trapped in the town, unable to work due to visa restrictions and a crashing economy, unable to leave due to closed borders and cancelled flights.
But when I drove into Queenstown at midday on Thursday there was only one word that came to mind: beautiful. A warm northerly was whipping up white caps on the deep royal blue Lake Wakatipu, a dusting of snow decorated The Remarkables and the willows that lined the lakefront were a radiant gold.
I’d viewed Queenstown as a place to avoid for so long that I’d forgotten how idyllic it was. In summer it could take an hour to drive the 7km from Frankton to the town centre due to the traffic. Entering the town itself usually involved battling through a sea of selfie-sticks and plodding tour groups. But now there were no distractions. The landscape was front and centre again. It was the Queenstown of my childhood, when we’d come through from Clyde for birthday parties and day trips during summer, swimming in the lake. It was back.
Rather than being a voyeur to the misery I had read about in the news, I ended up strolling along the waterfront in a state of ecstasy. I continued through to the Queenstown Gardens, trees still clinging to their autumn colours, and back along the shore of the forested peninsula that juts out into the lake. Someone was out swimming in the unseasonable warmth and a few couples were biking through the park. But mostly it was quiet, peaceful, deserted.
It wasn’t until I walked into the streets in town that the mood began to shift.
It was eerie. It wasn’t just the lack of people, it was the furrowed brows of those walking through. The furtive conversations with recurring themes — the wage subsidy, redundancies, the next flight out of town.
Taking photos I felt very conspicuous. I realised I was the only person taking photos. The only person around with a camera. Was I the only tourist in Queenstown?
At the pedestrian mall I overheard a couple, pushing a toddler in a pram, exclaim, “Wow, nobody’s here!”
Five days earlier mayor Jim Boult, local MP Hamish Walker and an entire band formed a greeting party to welcome the first plane into Queenstown Airport in six weeks. But it was clear the town was still in a kind of lockdown. Most of the shops were still shuttered.
On the waterfront, the office of tour business Southern Discoveries was closed. Its flagship boat, The Spirit of Queenstown, an 85-foot catamaran, was empty, groaning as it chafed against its moorings. Nearby, the famous Earnslaw steamship was closed for renovations. Booking office after booking office, closed. Happy Travels, Happy Tours, Discover Queenstown, Real Journeys, Ngai Tahu Tourism. All closed.
I came to The Remarkable Sweet Shop. It was open. I went in. Famous for its fudge and stocking every kind of candy you can think of, the shop is an icon of central Queenstown and is usually bustling. But it was empty.
Over a free taster of choc-peppermint fudge, staff member Maria Rodriguez told me they were only getting a handful of customers each hour. “Normally we get 600 people a day and 1000 a day during the weekend, but now we get about 80,” she said.
The shop used to open until 11pm each night but now it was closed by 5pm. A sign in the window advertised 20% off everything inside.
Rodriguez moved to Queenstown from Mexico two years ago, first on a one year working holiday visa but now on a sponsored work visa. If she loses her job she may have to go home. She said three of her four flatmates had already been made redundant since the lockdown began. Other friends had also lost their jobs at hotels; her best friend was one of 150 staff made redundant at The Hilton and she was one of the thousands trapped, unable to fly home to Colombia.
Rodriguez said she was one of the lucky ones. Her landlord from Invercargill had almost halved their rent, from $180 a week to $100. She still had her job and said her boss at the sweet shop was very supportive.
“They called us every week during the lockdown to make sure we were doing alright and to check if we needed anything,” she said. “The owner is very kind, they look after us. They provided firewood for us. They care about us. I’ve never heard of an owner doing this. I feel very lucky.”
Around the corner, I popped into the DF Souvenirs shop in the pedestrian mall leading to the waterfront. Among the woollen jerseys and possum fur hats, supervisor Maria Delacruz said business was very quiet. They had reopened a week ago but were only getting three or four customers an hour. While the managers hoped to keep staff on, she said the future was very uncertain.
“The good thing is we still have jobs,” Delacruz said. “The manager has been very good to us. We are really grateful. But still, we don’t know what will happen next.”
Delacruz moved to Queenstown from the Philippines three years ago and lives in Queenstown with her son and husband. “I love it here,” she said. “It’s quiet, there’s nice scenery, it’s peaceful.”
A lot of her friends had lost their jobs and some may have to head back to the Philippines. Her husband worked at the Rees Hotel near Frankton, but she’s worried he might also be made redundant. A recent survey of Queenstown hoteliers found on average they expected to lay off 69% of their staff.
“I think cuts are coming,” she said. “I’ve told my son we might have to go back to the Philippines and he cried.”
Around the corner I found the first tourism business with any sign of life. Two people were sitting at the counter of NZONE Skydive, but when I entered they said it was closed. They were getting ready to open next Wednesday.
The company’s business development manager Derek Melnick said most tourism businesses were focused on “ramping up” for Queen’s Birthday Weekend in two weeks’ time. “We are confident we will be supported by the community,” Melnick said.
But after Queen’s Birthday Weekend he expected it to be “sobering”. “Our expectation is that it will be very quiet again, at least until the school holidays in July and the start of the ski season.”
I asked him what the mood was like in town. “It’s been a rollercoaster and there is still so much uncertainty,” he said. “That’s what freaks people out the most. We are all living with constant uncertainty. But we are optimistic seeing things come to life again under level 2.
“It’s been tough after a promising start to the year, but we have to to do all we can.”
He said 90% of the business’s customers were from overseas, the biggest market coming from China followed by Australia. The company was slashing prices for its reopening, targeting locals and New Zealanders. Locals would pay $150 for a skydive, rather than $379 “to get the wheels turning”; then Kiwis would pay $299.
These sorts of massive discounts were everywhere. The Kawarau jet on the waterfront, now called KJet, had cut prices from $135 to $89 a person. AJ Hacket Bungy was selling jumps for $88, down from $205. Booze and food were likewise advertised at bargain prices. One restaurant advertised 30% off the menu; the Irish pub Pog Mahone’s had 20% off everything. At most places it seemed you could get a meal for $20 or less. I saw a neon sign outside a motel advertising rooms from $65. On the streets, chalk boards advertised beer from $5 a glass and spirits from $4.
Across the road I went to Queenstown’s most famous eatery, Ferg Burger. Here there were no discount prices, but a massive discount on time. I’d never seen the place without at least 30 people out front. The queue was like a permanent fixture of the street (the council actually had to redesign the street in 2015, removing car parks to accommodate the ever-present line), but now there was no queue at all.
Usually you’d have to wait more than an hour for a burger. It took 10 minutes and it lived up to its reputation (the secret is in the delicious flame-grilled patty). Despite there being no queue there was still a steady flow of customers and about 10 people were sitting outside waiting for their orders.
Elsewhere in town, establishments faced a mixed fate. It was the first day bars were able to open in nearly two months, and despite the discounts most were still deserted. At the prestigious Eichardt’s Bar on the waterfront, people were eating decadent tapas from tiers of silver trays. Others were empty, except for nervous looking staff.
At the busiest bar in town, 1876, the beer terrace outside was filled with young people, drinking jugs of beer at tables lit by fairy lights. I went in and joined a queue to be signed in – every patron had to write their name and contact details on arrival. But after waiting for five minutes the bar manager declared the bar was at capacity. Under social distancing rules they’ve had to strictly cut how many people they could serve.
Back on the street, as darkness fell, more people started to emerge. Locals catching up after weeks in lockdown. It appeared social distancing rules were but a memory, or a distant nightmare. The world started to feel normal again.
At the waterfront I came across a woman feeding dozens of ducks in the dark, throwing handfuls of grain from a large container. “They’re starving,” she said. “There have been no tourists to feed them.”
And she was right – they looked ravenous.
“They’ve relied on tourists as well, but these poor animals don’t understand what’s happened.”
Eventually I found a cosy bar, Atlas Beer Cafe, and went in for my first draught beer in nearly three months. The tiny place was humming. It had been open under level three for takeaways and serving drinks with a meal for the past week, but this was the first night people could drink in earnest.
“It’s been good,” the barmaid said. “We are really supported by locals and now that it’s just locals it’s actually quite nice.”
When I returned to the street, more bars were coming to life. The ones that targeted tourists were mostly empty, but others were filled with dozens of Queenstowners catching up after a long time between drinks.
Seeing the level of local support for the businesses I started to feel optimistic, too. Tourism had been both a boon and a burden for Queenstown. In surveys the town regularly had the most negative attitudes towards the impact of the industry and some people, like me, had been avoiding it for years. The economic benefits of tourism have also been questioned. An opinion piece by a former World Bank economist in local news website Crux had called the town’s growth a ponzi scheme. Wages had remained low — the town’s income per capita was lower than Northland or the West Coast — and inequality was high. Maybe this could be the reset Queenstown needed.
But how many locals will survive the downturn? What will happen to the thousands of unemployed migrants? And will Kiwis still be able to afford to visit?
As I walked back to my car it started to rain. The surf crashed on the shore as the northerly strengthened and I could hear The Spirit of Queenstown bucking at its moorings, howling in the wind.